Recently I was talking to the owner of a business who I admire greatly and I asked him if he would nominate a book that he could confidently recommend as a source of inspiration and advice to anyone who wanted to build a really successful business. I was expecting him to refer to one of the modern popular works on management from the likes of Peter Drucker and his ilk but he instantly (and without hesitation) said “Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.”
Like most people (perhaps I speak only for Australians) my admiration for Ben Franklin comes from my study of the role he played in American history as one of the Founding Fathers. He was 70 when he and the others drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence by which time he already had a lifetime of experience. But apart for knowing that he started life as a printer’s assistant, was a very personable “journalist” who subsequently morphed into a newspaper proprietor, statesman, philosopher, scientist, inventor and writer I did not realize that he was a successful business person (established a printing franchise for example) who combined extraordinary marketing savvy with business acumen together with a hunger for knowledge to stay ahead of the curve.
Despite having just one year of formal schooling he did pretty well for himself and the world. You can read about his life and business accomplishments by checking him out here but if you’re really interested take some time to read his autobiography; it takes a while to get used to the “old” English style of the day but you get the hang of it after about 50 pages and if you’re anything like me you’ll be amazed at his wit and wisdom.
But what I want to address in this post is an initiative I noted on p.71 (of my edition) of his autobiography. He wrote:
I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year,  I had formed most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discussed by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.
Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.
Ben Franklin clearly understood the power of surrounding yourself with smart, engaged and willing-to-help people in the form of a mastermind group. He came to this conclusion at the tender age of just 21 and way before Napoleon Hill wrote about the power of Mastermind Groups in his celebrated work Think and Grow Rich some 200 years later—I wonder if Andrew Carnegie, who was the sponsor of Hill’s work, had benefited from reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography.
Ben and ten of his colleagues would meet every Friday evening and although the primary purpose of the group was to encourage “mutual improvement” the Junto mastermind group was a source of great value to him as a person and business owner. For example, he noted that the process gave him “better habits of conversation” and how the members of the group “[exerted] themselves in recommending business to us.”
Throughout his work Franklin refers to developing better habits and how this ultimately led to success, he saw success as a journey and the logical outcome of behavioral habits that took you in the direction of accomplishment. One of the big messages I take away from his writing is the importance of hanging with people who, through stretching and challenging you, help you accomplish your full potential. Later writers like Jim Rohn suggest that “you become the average of the 5 people you spend most time with” which is certainly true in my case.
Fast forwarding to 1937 Napoleon Hill describes a Mastermind Group as “coordination of knowledge and effort, in a spirit of harmony, between two or more people, for the attainment of a definite purpose.” Hill noted that people like Ford, Carnegie, Firestone, and Edison as well as others of similar stature frequently got together to share experiences, seek advice, have their ideas and plans challenged and through that process tap into the “psychic” force that people on the same wavelength seem to create.
From what I have read this exact same process is embraced by Branson, Jobs, Gates and others. Birds of a feather flock together, that being so it’s best to flock with the right kind of birds – geese are a better choice than turkeys (especially around Thanksgiving) for example.
There is a large and growing body of scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of a Mastermind Group. Hill talks about “Economic advantages may be created by any person who surrounds himself [herself] with the advice, counsel, and personal co-operation of a group of men [women] who are willing to lend him [her] wholehearted aid, in a spirit of perfect harmony. This form of co-operative alliance has been the basis of nearly every great fortune.”
Franklin knew as Hill subsequently explains that “a group of brains coordinated … will provide more thought-energy than a single brain, just as a group of electric batteries will provide more energy than a single battery.”
But there is one thing that needs to be taken particular note of and that is, it’s not simply a matter of getting together with a bunch of people and expecting great things to happen. The group must contain people who are willing to constructively contribute. Franklin explained this when he said “in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband” i.e. we don’t want yes-people, we don’t want people who have a need to win an argument or unnecessarily disagreeably engage in argument just for the sake of it. We want people to have an open mind so it expands from the experience and broadens all the participant’s view of the world.